Obituaries, Dec. 8, 2022
Phil Strong, a much-awarded Toronto-based composer and sound designer, died on Dec. 3, at age 59.
By Kerry Doole
Phil Strong, a much-awarded Toronto-based composer and sound designer, died on Dec. 3, at age 59. SOCAN reports that this came "after a battle with amyloidosis, a rare illness, for which he was being treated."
A SOCAN tribute noted that Strong "was much appreciated in the Canadian music and arts communities for his calm demeanour, sharp wit, and great skill, Strong composed music and designed sound for film, dance, theatre, musical performances, art installations, and educational outreach."
Strong earned the most recent in a string of honours, this one at the inaugural edition of the Canadian Screen Music Awards (CASMAs), held Sept. 27, 2022, at the El Mocambo in Toronto. He was honoured in the category of Best Original Score for a short film for his work on In the Wake of Progress, directed by Ed Burtynsky – the soundtrack for which he was recruited by the legendary producer Bob Ezrin. This work took over the immense digital screens surrounding Yonge-Dundas Square in Toronto in a fully choreographed blend of photographs and film, with an expansive musical score. The 22-minute piece includes an original soundtrack by Strong, featuring iskwē, as well as musicians of The Glenn Gould School at The Royal Conservatory of Music, co-orchestrated and conducted by Claudio Vena.
At the time of his passing, Strong – working alongside his life partner, singer-composer Laurel MacDonald, and their colleague composer Cathy Nosaty – was starting on the production of Moving Parts for Denise Fujiwara of Fujiwara Dance Inventions, slated for August of 2023. This would be the fourth edition and the culmination of a multi-year project. Each year (pausing for Covid), Strong would arrange the music for, and musically accompany, a new 45-minute dance and choral production, which premiered either at Harbourfront Centre Theatre at The Power Plant, or at the summer Dusk Dances event in downtown Toronto’s Withrow Park.
Strong grew up in Sudbury, ON, playing piano and drums, and tried his hand at composing from an early age. Alongside a stint playing drums and singing alongside Laurel MacDonald in Toronto folk quartet 3 Our Tour in the mid-'90s (he produced their cassette 3 Our Tour 2), Strong's interests led to study at Trebas and an audio internship at the Banff Centre for the Arts. There, he came into contact with many artists who imparted their craft and insight into the art of soundtrack creation. A POV magazine profile noted that at Banff "he was essentially living a 'crash course in everything there is to know about audio and sound for other artists’ projects." Since then, Strong had scored the soundtracks for more than 30 films, as well as dozens of dance productions and art installations.
Working, writing, and performing together since the early ‘90s, Strong and MacDonald, a noted vocalist and composer, teamed up to score several films, including Year Of The Lion, which earned a Gemini Award for Best Original Musical Score in 2003. A year later, Strong generated a combined sound design and musical score for Continuous Journey, which generated two more Gemini nominations; one for Best Music and another for Best Sound.
In 2010, Strong earned another Gemini for his original score to Cat Ladies. Strong and MacDonald also earned a Canadian Screen Award nomination and a 2021 SOCAN Award win for Achievement in Made-For-TV Movie Music for You Are Here: A Come From Away Story – which detailed the true story behind the blockbuster stage musical Come From Away.
Strong was the principal composer for Christopher House and Toronto Dance Theatre for more than a decade, creating soundtracks for nine major dance productions – and earning the first-ever Dora Mavor Moore Award for Outstanding Music in Dance (for Timecode Break). He was nominated for a Dora again in Outstanding Music and Design for EUNOIA, Denise Fujiwara’s piece based on Christian Bök’s seminal book of poetry.
As an installation designer, Strong was tasked by John Oswald to design a 14-channel surround sound system (as well as some multi-channel composition) for the multi-screen video installation, Stress, by Bruce Mau. This piece debuted at the Austrian Museum of Applied Arts (MAK) in the year 2000, and continued on an international circuit. Phil again collaborated with Oswald to create A Time to Hear for Here, a permanent 35-channel audio installation in the Royal Ontario Museum. He also engineered immersive surround compositions for Sara Angelucci’s Anonymous Chorus and Su Rynard’s As Soon As Weather Permits.
Strong produced albums for several recording artists and contributed to collections of sound and music, as well as releasing soundtracks from his film scores and dance productions. Lusciana’s Lullaby, produced for Laurel MacDonald, became Echoes Radio’s Best album of 2005. Storas, which Strong produced and arranged for Mary Jane Lamond, earned an East Coast Music Award for Best Solo Album in 2006.
Strong also headed up a Film Sound & Music course for a decade and was involved in outreach recording and production at the University of Toronto School. He was also known to perform on the T.O.O.B. – an electro-acoustic instrument of his own design.
The Toronto music community has been quick to express sadness over this loss. Fellow composer/musician Kurt Swinghammer shared this on FB: "Like so many in the Toronto arts community, I’m devastated to hear of the death of Phil Strong - a unique, gentle, generous and most brilliant creative spirit. We caught his epic collaboration with Burtynsky at Yonge & Dundas last summer and fortunately had an opportunity to let him know how incredibly powerful his music was. I’ll always think of that transformative night whenever I'm at that intersection."
In a Facebook tribute, Strong's bandmate in 3 Our Tour, Bev Kreller posted this: "Very sad news of my dear friend and former bandmate and choir mate Phil Strong. He was one of the most talented, creative, and generous people I know. A celebrated composer, producer, musician, and inventor. He joined our band when he got together with Laurel, who was the love of his life. He was a joy to play music with, and we did many tours and gigs together through the ‘90s. and spent many lovely times sharing special events and meals at their place. Later he was instrumental in so patiently and generously helping me learn the ropes of engineering and running my recording studio Seraphic Sound."
Fellow composer Mark Korven posted this: "Devastated by the sudden loss of one of our best friends, Phil Strong. I've never met a more level-headed, generous, thoughtful, and patient fellow. All the while carrying with him such humility. A big hole in the heart of the music community today.
"Phil was well known to most of you as a wonderful screen composer. He was also a brilliant sound designer, recording engineer, and tech guru. I've never met anyone that never actually got angry with technical troubles. He just calmly set about following the trail of digital bread crumbs till he found the solution. And this deep understanding he generously shared with others, helping out someone that was stuck at a moment's notice, even if he was behind the eight ball with work.
I first met Phil after the release of Laurel MacDonald’s first album Kiss Closed my Eyes back in 1995. I marvelled at how beautifully recorded it was. Phil told me later that it was recorded at home, using a tiny Mackie mixer. Bare bones. He had a Midas touch with sound.
"I remember a few years ago, he received an award for a soundtrack. It was basically all Phil’s work, but he shared the award with those of us that did some improvisation on it. Generous, humble. Truly one of the good guys in this business that we’re in. Phil is also very well known for his decades of work in the contemporary dance world. His more experimental work there is very well regarded. Outside of music, Phil was an avid devourer of books, nature enthusiast, sailboat captain, and long-distance cyclist. Phil was the calm in the eye of this stormy world. Level-headed, thoughtful, and patient, all the while going through life with incredible humility. A good soul. A gentle soul. We lost one of the good ones, folks.
Hamish Kilgour, a co-founder of influential New Zealand indie rock band The Clean, has died at age 65. A cause of death has not been reported. His body was found in Christchurch, NZ, on Dec. 5, a week after he had been reported missing.
Kilgour, a drummer, began his music career more than 40 years ago when he founded The Clean with his guitarist brother David in 1978 in Dunedin, NZ. That band was at the forefront of the so-called 'Dunedin sound,' one brought to international prominence by NZ indie record label Flying Nun.
The band released the single Tally Ho in 1981. It peaked at number 19 in the charts but paved the way for the future success of Flying Nun. The band’s next release, the five-track EP BoodleBoodle Boodle, soon followed and reached number five in the charts.
Their recordings and fearsome live performances also garnered international attention, name-checked by the likes of American indie stalwarts Sonic Youth, Pavement, Guided by Voices and Yo La Tengo.
By 1982 the band would go into an extended hiatus, with Kilgour later involved with NZ band Bailterspace, but when the sonic noise merchants played in New York, he elected to move there permanently in the late 1980s. Even while the band was inactive throughout much of the 1980s, Flying Nun released a compilation of their early recordings, titled simply Compilation, in 1986.
In the late ’80s, The Clean reformed and began touring, with the live record ‘In-a-Live’, captured in London, arriving in 1989. The following year, the band’s debut album, Vehicle, was released by both Flying Nun and Rough Trade.
Kilgour formed The Mad Scene in the early 1990s and released the EP Falling Over, Spilling Over, and was also part of several later albums with The Clean, most recently Mister Pop in 2009.
Kilgour won an Aotearoa Music Award in 1992 for the album cover of the year for Pink Flying Saucers Over the Southern Alps, and this year featured on the cover of Needles and Plastic, Flying Nun Records, 1981-1988 by Canadian author Matthew Goody.
In 2017 he and members of The Clean, including the late Peter Gutteridge, were inducted into the New Zealand Music Hall of Fame. A biography of the band for their induction, which fittingly took place in Dunedin, said: “The group’s mix of driving folk-ish pop, insistent psychedelic instrumentals, and offbeat yet accessible minimalism has proved timeless. As has The Clean’s philosophy and rationale. Trusting your musical instincts and doing it for yourself were key ideals of the group, their success showing the importance and validity of taking complete creative control over the timing, capture, presentation and expression of your art.”
The Mad Scene's debut album, A Trip Thru Monsterland, arrived in 1993, with a follow-up, Sealight, released in 1995.
In 2014, Kilgour released his first solo album, All Of It And Nothing, on the American label Ba Da Bing. His second solo album, Finklestein, was released four years later. Kilgour, as part of The Clean, was inducted into the New Zealand Music Hall of Fame in 2017. Sources: Stuff, NME, NZ Herald, Audioculture
Jim Stewart - a co-founder of the famed label Stax Records and a producer of many of its hits, died on Dec. 4, at age 92.
Stewart started up the label in Memphis as Satellite Records with his sister Estelle Axton in 1957; they merged the first two letters of their last names to create the company's enduring handle in 1959. As noted music journalist/author Chris Morris noted in a FB post, "the history of soul music and blues is unthinkable without the music of Stax, some of which Stewart produced in the company's infancy. If you want to learn more about Stewart and Stax, pick up Robert Gordon's essential history, Respect Yourself.
Famed Memphis record producer Terry Manning posted this tribute: "So many people, including me, owe a good part of their participation and success in music to the iconic and indefatigable Jim Stewart, Founder of Stax Records. Jim not only started the company (with his sister Estelle Axton), but also was responsible for the production of a number of the amazing Stax hits."
Stax went into involuntary bankruptcy in 1975, marking the death of Stewart’s brainchild. The studio was torn down in 1989. Since then, Stax has been rebuilt and reborn in the form of a museum, a music academy and a charter school.
Stewart, who mostly stayed out of the public eye after Stax stopped making music, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002. In 2013, Stewart made a rare appearance at Stax, touring the museum before visiting with the teenage musicians who attend the Stax Music Academy. Stewart made a few other appearances at Stax after that, including in 2019 for a news conference to announce plans for the academy’s 20th anniversary. “The music is still alive, and that’s what’s great about it,” Stewart said during the 2013 tour. “I’m very proud of what they have done. It’s amazing to me.”
Noted Toronto author and musicologist Rob Bowman is a renowned authority on Stax Records and a longtime friend of Stewart. He created liner notes for boxed sets of The Complete Stax/Volt Soul Singles, and in 2003 he wrote a book, Soulsville, U.S.A. – The Story of Stax Records, about the label's history. Bowman won the 1996 Best Album Notes Grammy for his 47K word monograph accompanying the 10-CD boxed set of The Complete Stax/Volt Soul Singles, Vol. 3: 1972–1975. On Facebook, he stated that "In founding Stax Records, Jim inextricably changed my life. When I met him years later, he changed my life yet again, this time in a completely different way. The first night we were together, we spoke for seven straight hours, which turned out to be the beginning of a friendship that lasted for the next thirty-six years. There is nothing I can write here that can begin to express my sense of loss."
Bowman offered this insight to FYI: "Jim Stewart felt that Otis Redding's version of Try a Little Tenderness was the greatest recording ever made at Stax. From the contrapuntal horn introduction to the explosive ending where Redding gets so emotional that he loses language altogether and simply utters a string of vocables, for Jim this recording summed up everything great about Stax. He. of course, produced this and virtually every other recording Otis ever made."
Read more about Stewart in this Commercial Appeal obit.
Sources: Rob Bowman, Commercial Appeal, Chris Morris.